Saturday, January 22, 2022

In regard to teshuva, our parsha says: “It’s not concealed from you, nor is it far away… it’s not up in the heavens that you should say who will go up to get it for us … nor is it across the sea that you should say who will cross over the sea for us to go retrieve it…rather it is extremely close to you—it’s in your mouth and heart” (30:11-14). The Torah, in this area of teshuva, expresses uniquely descriptive and wordy language that may be somewhat wondersome why it’s so.

The midrash (Devarim Rabbah 8:3), on the above reference to teshuva, brings a parable of “a fool who enters the shul and sees those engaged in Torah study and asks them, ‘How does a person begin to study Torah?’ They tell him, ‘First you read from a scroll, then from a book, then the Prophets, then the Writings. Afterward, the Written Torah, then you study the Talmud, then Halacha, then the aggadic teachings.’” The midrash says that once he hears this, he says to himself, “When am I going to learn all of this?” And then he turns and leaves.

It’s evident from the midrash that this person wanted to study Torah, and so he asked how to go about it, where to start, and how to get on track. So they told him the way things work, from start to finish. Isn’t that great? Now he had it all figured out! So why’d he “bounce”? It’s perhaps implicit that upon hearing the rather lengthy process, he reflected on how big of an endeavor it is, and it seemed too much for him, and so he left. Sure, he himself may have indicated he wanted to learn all of Torah, yet the midrash considers him a fool, perhaps because the way to approach growth isn’t like a hero—to do it all in one day. But rather, it’s a step-by-step process. Like they told him, first start with this. Then you’ll get to here. From there you go there, etc. One at a time, gradually, and with consistency, you can make it. Yet, as fervent as he may have been to accomplish, he was so overwhelmed by the whole ordeal, he didn’t even bother to at least just put himself on the right track.

Perhaps the Torah’s imagery and descriptive terms in regard to teshuva are therefore along these lines. For a person may want to correct and grow, but he may see how far he is and how much there is to do and feel that it’s not practical. So the Torah reassures us—it’s not so far, it’s not in the heavens or across the sea. It’s reachable—it’s with you literally, “in your mouth and heart.” It’s relatable, practical and doable.

We can learn from this midrash that when approaching a new implementation of a given activity that we want to incorporate into our daily schedule to eventually reach a certain goal, not to necessarily think that it has to be done in one day, but instead just to start with one thing at a time, and just get ourselves on the track that may eventually get us to that goal.

A thought dawned on me in regard to the Daf Yomi program, learning a page of Talmud a day to eventually finish Shas in about seven years. Imagine someone who completed it and looks back at those seven years. Such a massive accomplishment—he finished Shas! And what did it take? Just an hour, maybe even 45 minutes a day. When first beginning, it might look too large to tackle. Yet if only a few minutes a day are designated for one thing in order to reach a certain goal, on the surface it may not seem like one is doing much. However, by just getting themselves on that track and following through with consistency, at the end of a year or a few years they may look back and see such a great accomplishment.

I heard a remarkable observation from R’ Gavriel Friedman: What would you rather, a million dollars up front, or a penny for 30 days but that each day it doubles from the previous [so day one is one, day two is two, day three is four, day four is eight, day five is 16, etc]. If you chose the million it makes sense, but if you do the calculation, it comes out that the penny for 30 days when doubled each day comes out to over 5 million dollars after 30 days! At first glance, starting with that first penny seemed almost insignificant. But in the long run it grew exponentially.

When a person commits to learn a page of Torah a day, or to do a certain chesed a day, or whatever it may be, the first day is just one. But the second day isn’t one page or one chesed—it’s two in total, with the advantage of two straight days, not that it’s looked upon as its own separate day. The third day, you may have done only one page, but now it’s a total of three, with the advantage of three straight days, etc. The same “small act” that on the onset may have looked like not much, if done consistently grows not just one by one, but may increase exponentially in a way that is unfathomable. Just committing and beginning to get on a certain track lies within it a futuristic element in that after some time that new path can snowball into a massive bundle of success.

Binyamin Benji can be reached at [email protected]

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